The chain-smoking, chopper-mouthed, right-wing eighties-talk-show blowhard Morton Downey Jr. is the subject of the documentary Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie, which deftly chronicles (with period footage, interviews, and hilarious gonzo animation) his tortured life. Directors Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, and Jeremy Newberger depict Downey as a man with serious daddy issues. His father was a hugely popular Irish tenor, his mother — one of cinema’s famed Bennett sisters — exiled early from the family manse (and apparently into alcoholism). Sons with an obsession to best their dads are trouble. In worst-case scenarios, they get us into cataclysmic wars in places like Iraq. Downey, once a Kennedy loyalist, tried singing, but his voice was buffalo-abysmal. He found a more powerful voice on Channel 9 in Secaucus.
The show owed much to an earlier one by Joe Pyne, but Downey turned his red-meat act into a Theater of Cruelty. Footage of him bearing down on guests like a mythical dragon, the cords in his neck bulging, still evoke my fight-or-flight instincts. Downey didn’t just cater to the mob instincts of his audiences. He became engorged by their fury. That said, comparisons to party apparatchiks like Sean Hannity or demented clowns like Glenn Beck seem off base. Downey was more like the Vegas creature parodied in Beetlejuice by Michael Keaton, who catches his breath after a showstopper and says, “That is why I don’t do two shows a night!” He burned way too hot to last on TV.
I was a guest on Downey’s show toward the end of his run. (By then he downplayed the smoking — a pretty production assistant snatched his cigarette seconds before the show returned from a commercial and gave it back to him seconds into the next break.) It was a “soft” pop-culture episode, so he didn’t bite my head off. And later he was a mensch — he high-fived me and stuck around to chat. I enthused to him about a Village Voice colleague, Joe Conason, one of the few lefties able to hold his own against the onslaught, and Downey said, “Aw, I love, Joe! See, that’s what I want here! It’s so much fun when they can give it right back!”
For all the mayhem Downey generated, it’s hard not to wince when he crashes and burns, a victim of his incendiary exhibitionism. After devoting hours to Tawana Brawley and her defender Al Sharpton, he was suddenly at the center of his own questionable assault story — by skinheads, he claimed, in an airport bathroom. His lifelong friend and music partner Lloyd Schoonmaker reveals new information that’s very sad. Very, very sad. Later footage shows Downey sick with lung cancer, testifying before Congress on the dangers of smoking. He spent his last years dismantling his earlier persona.
Right-wing commentators will probably fulminate that no one in Évocateur takes Downey’s political ideas seriously. I do. I don’t think it was all a pose. But it wasn’t ideological, either. Downey found a way to channel his working-class audience’s anger against liberal shibboleths and not incidentally take down both his dad and his surrogate dad—Teddy Kennedy. It’s a riveting Oedipal tragedy.
This review originally ran in the June 3, 2013 issue of New York magazine.